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A Dunkirk hero’s final days

After nearly 70 years Sgt. Gerald Raeymacker, U.S. Army, has returned to his hometown and to the family and friends who love and remember him. It is an occasion that brings with it both joy and sorrow.

The Korean War is called the Forgotten War because it was lost among the momentous events of the 20th century. Its veterans went to war and came home with little fanfare. It began unexpectedly on a quiet Sunday morning in June 1950 when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea invaded the Republic of South Korea in a part of Asia few Americans had heard of.

That was the war that a young Sgt. Raeymacker fought and died in. He was a member of B Battery of the 57th Field Artillery Battalion that was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ray Embree. The 57th consisted of A, and B batteries, each equipped with 6 M101 105MM light howitzers, and Headquarters and Service Battery.

Like myself in a later war, Raeymacker was an artilleryman and he might have been in charge of a howitzer and its crew; or perhaps he was in charge of the ammo section or maybe he worked in the batterie’s fire direction center. However, no matter what his Military Occupational Specialty it’s likely that during the fighting at the Chosin Reservoir he and his fellow artillerymen fought with an M1 rifle or any weapon available to protect their unit and its guns from Chinese attack.

The 57th Field Artillery was attached to “Task Force MacLean,” a regimental combat team formed in mid-November under the command of Col. Alan D. MacLean. A regimental combat team was a temporary unit designed for a specific mission and in the case of Task Force MacLean it was formed with the purpose of relieving elements of the 1st Marine Division on the east side of the Chosin Reservoir.

The units making up the task force, were in addition to the 57th, MacLean’s own 31st Infantry Regiment made up of the 2/31 and 3/31 Infantry Battalions, the 31st Tank Company, the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Don Faith, and a platoon of eight antiaircraft vehicles.

The formation of Task Force MacLean was one of the preparatory moves made to facilitate the U.S. 10th Corps role in the attack to the Yalu River that separated North Korea from China. In the opinion of the U.N. command, this attack, along with the Eighth Army attack on the western side of the Korean peninsula, would eliminate North Korea and end the war. Confidence in this result was expressed by General MacArthur’s Tokyo headquarters which stated that by Christmas the war would be ended and American units back in Japan.

The Chosin Reservoir is located in the mountains of north central North Korea; mountains that reach as high as 7000 feet. Already in the fall of 1950 a combination of altitude and winds coming down out of Siberia resulted in daytime temperatures barely above zero and nighttime temperatures well below zero.

To ward off the cold Raeymacker and fellow soldiers would have worn much of the following: a set of long woolen underwear, two pairs of wool socks, a woolen shirt, cotton field pants over a pair of woolen trousers, a pile jacket, a wind resistant parka and hood, woolen mitten inserts with leather outer shells, a fatigue cap with ear flaps and insulated boots called “Bunny Boots” or “Mickey Mouse” boots because of their bulbous size and white color.

But even with all that clothing, Raeymacker and his fellow soldiers were never warm and because this early version of their insulated boots did not adequately allow moisture to be released from inside the boots; many cases of frostbitten feet and toes resulted.

Task Force MacLean’s mission was to lead the U.S. attack up the east side of the reservoir while the 5th Marines of the Marine 1st Division attacked up the west side. The attacks began on Nov. 28 and both immediately encountered unexpected and heavy Chinese resistance. That night units of the Chinese 80th Division attacked the separated units of the task force inflicting heavy causalities.

Following another day and night of continued heavy Chinese attacks Task Force MacLean was ordered to discontinue its attack and begin a withdrawal several miles south to the Marine base at Hagaru-ri. In the course of this withdrawal Colonel Maclean and later Lt. Col. Faith, MacLean’s replacement, were killed and as other officers and NCO’s were killed or wounded unit integrity in the retreating column broke under continued Chinese attacks.

During the night of Dec. 1 and 2, survivors of the Task Force entered Marine lines at Hagaru-ri. Out of 3,200 troops who had gone north 1,000 returned to Hagaru-ri and of that number only 385 remained combat effective. After regrouping at Hagaru-ri the survivors continued the withdrawal to the North Korean east coast port of Hung-ham for transport to the south.

On Dec. 6 as the convoy in which Raeymacker was driving a truck approached the Korean town of Hamhung it was attacked by Chinese forces. Raeymacker escaped from his disabled truck but was hit by fire as he took cover in a field.

A fellow soldier hid Raeymacker under hay. After this incident Raeymacker was reported as missing in action. Records indicate that he was among 59 soldiers from B Battery that died during the Chosin fight.

Sergeant Raeymacker’s fate was unknown until DNA testing determined that his remains were included in those turned over to the U.S. by the North Koreans.

Now he has returned home.

Thomas Kirkpatrick Sr. is a Silver Creek resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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